The Caged Bird’s Song: A Juror’s View

In her play Trifles, Susan Glaspell presents a disturbing tale of a long- suffering, discontented woman who finally gets the courage to free herself from the bondage of oppression. At the outset, the plot is a typical murder story: a husband is strangled to death on the marital bed and the wife is the usual suspect. But no matter how artistically and skillfully Glaspell keeps her audience in suspense regarding the identity of the murderer, she has however successfully seen to it that it suspects no other character as the murderer except Minnie Wright, the wife. But, as one critic says, the point of the play is not who did the crime but why it was committed.

Several reasons for the murder point to the direction of Minnie’s repressed existence. This subjugation she suffered from is time and again hinted at by the author through the sexist remarks of the men investigating the crime and the conspiratorial dialogue and actions of the women.

The title of the play suggests that men regard the preoccupation of women, such as canning, preserving, quilting or even keeping a pet, as trifles. This is why the men will probably fail to discover condemning evidence to convict Minnie. When the Sheriff comments that there’s nothing in the house but “kitchen things”, he means women’s things, and therefore worthless as evidence. This prejudiced comment shows how men put more importance on their own pursuits. There are lots of concerns of women that men put aside as trivial. This disdain and this downplaying, whether consciously or unconsciously done and maliciously or innocently made, put women down more than they [both men and women] realize. When they learn that Minnie had been worrying about her preserves, another chauvinist remark goes out: “Held for murder and worrying about her preserves,” followed by “well, women are used to worrying over trifles.”

Mrs. Peter’s and Mrs. Hale’s observations and speculations regarding the behavior of Minnie and the state of her marriage however, reveal how unhappy and isolated she had been. First, she didn’t belong to the Ladies Aid. They conclude that that she probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway as she’d most likely look shabby. This comment is prompted by an examination done on her skirt. Mrs. Hale, who knew Minnie Foster as a young woman, recalls that Minnie “used to wear pretty clothes and be lively.” This recollection suggests that the Minnie at present is miserable and is deprived of women’s luxuries. Mrs. Hale also recalls that Minnie, thirty years ago, used to sing in the choir and that she loved singing.

Both women also notice a half-done quilt. They are surprised to see an inconsistency in her work. At the beginning, the patchwork looks “nice and even” but the later part she had been working on looks bad. This leads Mrs. Hale to deduce that something must have disturbed Minnie very much and this caused the irregularity in her sewing.

Another unhappy fact in Minnie’s marriage is the lack of children. This suggests further the emptiness she must have felt for thirty years. The ladies assume that, from the empty birdcage they find, Minnie got herself a pet to keep away the loneliness and that this bird has been a source of comfort to her. Mrs. Hale also shares her opinion regarding John Wright, saying that although he didn’t drink, kept his word and paid his debts, he was a hard man. This view shows that Wright must have been a difficult person to live with.

When the women discover a dead canary in Minnie’s sewing box, they easily believe that John Wright killed the bird. By the look of the cage’s broken door, this conclusion is not so far-fetched. This is perhaps the ultimate proof of Minnie’s anger and motivation for killing her husband. The signs are everywhere. John Wright was strangled with a rope around his neck. The bird’s neck was wrung. The canary was a source of happiness for Minnie and its death was the last straw. Being caged, the bird in a way symbolizes Minnie’s imprisonment. But the significance of the dead canary would definitely elude the men because they would look at it as trivial, never understanding the real nature of Minnie’s crime.

The cage and the house are powerful symbols of Mrs. Wright’s imprisonment in her marriage. In a critical study on Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar hypothesized on “the madwoman in the attic.” On a similar point, Trifles implies that Minnie is another madwoman in the attic trying to escape from behind the gross, yellow wallpaper that was her cage. The years of submission to her hard, overbearing and cruel husband, the childless marriage, the lack of self-worth, all contribute to the madness and violence of Minnie Wright. Judging from Lewis Hale’s narration, Minnie has ceased to care about her life. She didn’t care about the possibility of being imprisoned. Like the madwoman in the attic, all Mrs. Wright wanted was to escape “the house that turned against her” and the marriage that caged her. Of course there was no other way out for her except to kill John. The symbolic manner in which she murdered her husband offers a glimpse into the violence she was just trying to give back to him and the equally violent woman Minnie has become. The biggest irony is that even if her crime has been justified by her “peers,” as shown by their tacit agreement to hide “evidence” that might incriminate her, it is eventually the men who will put her to jail. After all, John Wright was one of them. Paradoxical as it may seem, it wouldn’t really make a difference to her anymore. It would be just like going from one prison to another. She’s used to it. But this new prison would be far, far better than the first. Here, there is hope that she might still find the peace and happiness that had been denied her for thirty years.

A ray of light shines through for all those women who live in a dark, secret and repressed universe; this play has let that light in. They could finally crawl out of that sordid yellow wallpaper. Hopefully, not through murder of course.


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